Editors note: This article was originally published on 8 September 2022 and has been updated in light of recent events. On 15 September, a leaked government report suggested little scientific progress has been made in reducing and predicting the risk of earthquakes caused by fracking. In spite of this, Liz Truss had said her government would lift the ban.
There was an outpouring of relief when it finally rained in Britain this summer after a historic drought. But then there was also an outpouring of sewage as water companies struggled to cope with the deluge. Likewise, there is relief today that Liz Truss’s plan to address runaway energy bills includes financial help for those facing extreme fuel poverty this winter. Yet proposals to expand oil and gas extraction mean a particularly bleak kind of climate-sewage is set to follow.
The foundation of the new Prime Minister’s energy strategy, announced on Thursday, is that energy prices will be frozen so that households will pay on average no more than £2,500 a year for two years. The policy has been estimated to cost at least £150bn, yet because the existing windfall tax is not to be extended, the ultimate bill will land on future taxpayers. Meanwhile, the excess profits of energy firms over the next two years from high oil and gas prices are expected to reach £170bn.
Alongside the price cap, the government announced dozens of new drilling licenses for North Sea oil and gas, and to lift the moratorium on fracking. The latter was banned during the 2019 election campaign, after years of protests, planning objections and legal challenges. Truss has said that new fracking sites would only open where there was local support, which is difficult to find anywhere, although how that support is to be determined is unclear.
What all these measures amount to is monumental backtracking on the “climate leadership” lauded at the Cop conference in Glasgow less than a year ago. “Pick the planet,” Alok Sharma, the Cop26 president, urged — but the extraction of new oil and gas is the opposite of what is needed for that transition to a clean, safe, energy-secure future.
[See also: How sustainable is nuclear energy?]
First there is the straightforward fact that renewable energy is cheaper and more plentiful than British oil and gas. In 2020 renewables became the cheapest source of energy, according to a report by the International Renewable Energy Agency. “Meeting [the target for net-zero greenhouse gas emissions] can help secure the UK’s energy sovereignty and protect it from volatile fossil fuel prices,” the Climate Change Committee, an independent statutory organisation, stressed in a joint letter with the National Infrastructure Commission released this week. “Our gas reserves – offshore or from shale – are too small to impact meaningfully the prices faced by UK consumers.”
Second, renewables, insulation and energy efficiency measures can be implemented much faster than new fossil fuel extraction. An onshore wind-farm can be built in as little as two months. A heat pump can be installed in a home in two to four (though training installers of course takes longer). In contrast, as the anti-North Sea oil campaign group StopCambo points out, a new oil or gas field takes on average 28 years to go from discovery to development. (Known fields could be made ready faster, but are mostly oil, and not the kind used in British refineries.)
And third, perhaps most critically of all, extracting new fossil fuel reserves will condemn the planet to climate chaos. As the International Energy Agency has warned, exploiting new sources of oil and gas will prevent the world from meeting its crucial targets to reach net zero by 2050.
With all this in mind, it is possible to kid ourselves that the government’s announcements on fracking and North Sea oil may just be political posturing, designed to appease the Tories’ core supporters, and the policies will never come to fruition. Not least since British voters do not want fracking to go ahead. On the other hand, the Conservative government may continue to pander to fossil fuel interests, as it did by giving oil and gas companies windfall tax relief if they invested in further “UK extraction” – ie, more fossil fuels.
Either way, however, the collective message the energy strategy sends the world is that when the going gets tough, the UK will double down on the same fossil fuels that are behind the crisis. Action on climate change be damned.
And if that’s how a rich, developed country (the birthplace of the industrial revolution no less) deals with the pressure of a strained economy, how can emerging economies, often still reliant on coal, be expected to adapt at the speed required? Whatever the disastrous financial debt that Truss’s quick-fix policy lands on the future UK taxpayer, the longer term climate debt to the world will be immeasurably worse.